When Prestwick-born British ice dance champion Lewis Gibson was training as a young skater at Ayr Ice Rink, the facility had to be shared with curlers – who needed a different kind of ice for their sport.
“It was hard to get figure skating ice in the winter,” he remembers, explaining how a rink needs to be resurfaced after curling to remove the bumps which allow the stones the friction they need to glide – but make it impossible to skate on.
Gibson was back in Ayr last week, coaching the next generation of young skaters in an ice camp – and he brought his training mates Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, triple world figure skating champions and silver Olympic medallists.
The camp attracted more than 50 competitive figure skaters from across the UK and was a chance for Gibson, who last season rocketed up the international ice dance rankings with his partner Lilah Fear, to give something back to the community where he began his career.
Among the skaters coached over the two-day camp by champions Cizeron and Papadakis was 17-year-old Ele Silvester, also from Prestwick, who is currently competing at the national junior level. Silvester took up skating at the age of eight and travelled to Helsinki with her mother to watch Papadakis and Cizeron win the ice dance category at the World Championships in 2017.
“It’s amazing to see them skating here, on my rink,” she said. “It has been so good to see how easily they do everything. I watch them and want to be able to do it like that.”
Ele, pictured inset, a pupil at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, has already benefited from Gibson’s connection to the Ayr rink – getting the occasional lesson from the top-ranked skater on his trips home and convincing him to choreograph a dance for her competitive short programme for the coming season.
“It is nice to feel like I can give something back,” Gibson explained. “I come from here and things like this inspired and helped me when I was younger and that’s what I wanted to give them.”
Gibson, who was ranked 13th in this year’s World Championships in Japan and sixth in the European Figure Skating Championships in Belarus, is modest about his own achievements compared to those of Papadakis and Cizeron.
He said: “We get to see skaters of their level at the International Skating Union events, but most of the young skaters don’t, so it’s great that they can see them skate here.”
Papadakis said: “Lewis and Lilah have really got results this season and it is great that he is from Scotland and young skaters there can look up to him. It is good for kids to have role models to look up to.
“It’s great that he’s doing this camp - it’s amazing for the kids, they are very lucky.”
While over half of the skaters at the Ayr camp are local, the rest have travelled from elsewhere in the UK.
Lucy Visinonia, whose daughter, Lydia, 12, competes in the basic novice category of ice dance, came up from Chester for the camp.
“The opportunity to share the same rink with skaters of this level is just amazing,” she said.
“Not only Lewis – and if it was him on his own, everyone would be there like a shot – but also the reigning world champions.”
In addition to two hours of on-ice time with the champions each day, the skaters also are given intensive off-ice training, including pilates and ballet with Tatiana Tretyakova, a London-based former principal ballet dancer at the Bolshoi in Moscow, who Gibson and Fear have trained with since they started working together. The youngsters also work with a musical theatre coach, to help them become more expressive in their skating.
Coach Natalie Dallas, from Glasgow, is supporting a group of her skaters at the camp.
“It is a great opportunity for them, because there is not enough funding around for skaters in this country – they can’t compete against the kids from some other countries who have so many more opportunities for development,” she said.
“In Russia, they have a school for figure skaters, where they fit their academic work in around their training, whereas we are constantly competing with the skaters’ schools for time.”
Funding for figure skaters is almost non-existent in the UK, since British skaters dropped off the Olympic podium – before Gibson and Fear started competing at a high level.
“Potentially, if we do well in 2020, it might bring it back, but we wouldn’t see any of it,” said Gibson.
Ice Dundee – an elite group of skaters trained by Debi and Simon Briggs, which includes current British champion Natasha McKay and former British champions Carly Robertson and Danni Harrison – recently received £30,000 training money from Sport Scotland to help create an elite training centre for skaters and coaches.
“At last they’re recognising it as a sport again, which they didn’t for the last few years,” added Gibson.